Management Service + Hospitality

Valuable Lessons Learned Along the Way

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Written by Zach Lieberman

The door is always open no matter how packed the room is. Dan Kerrigan / Steel & Rye
Sycamore is a 48-seat restaurant, 32 of which are reserved for the majority of dinner service. That leaves us just 16 seats to offer anyone who comes in on a whim. Wait times regularly reach 45 minutes and while we don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t want to stand around, of course we’d rather they stay with us than go elsewhere. I have found time and again that being open, enthusiastic and encouraging with guests works wonders – both in getting them in the door, but also at preventing frustration over a long queue. People are afraid they’ll be ignored if they aren’t sitting and my job is to ensure them that we will take care of them from the moment they walk in the door.

A few months after Sycamore opened, I took a call from a gentleman asking about space for two late on a Saturday night. He was friendly and polite, but I could sense he was on the fence about whether to come in. I told him it that even if we had a wait going, it was always worth popping by. If the bar side was full when he and his wife got here, we would get them in queue and get a drink in their hands. He bit. Upon arrival, he pulled me aside and introduced himself as Dan Kerrigan, the owner and then-GM of Steel & Rye in Milton. He gave me my first boost of confidence as a restaurant manager, telling me that I had said the perfect thing over the phone to him. He wouldn’t have come had I not been so inviting. “Keep that up,” he told me, “and you guys will do great.”

Take the high road. Every. Single. Time. Dave Punch / Sycamore
Sometimes we screw up. It stinks, but a restaurant can be a chaotic and unpredictable place. I like to think that we own our mistakes and do our best to recover from them. We try to turn around miscues when they are benign and apologize when they are not. Sometimes, though, people think we screwed up when we didn’t. Even less often, people come in looking for a screw up. These instances are especially frustrating for me, because our team works incredibly hard and takes great pride in what they do. The innate reflex in these situations is to argue, to fight back and stand my ground. But what good does that do? It’s certainly not going to win that guest back and it’s likely to disrupt others who are trying to enjoy their meal. Getting defensive would be petty and unprofessional. Instead, I do my best to remain gracious in spite of disagreeing. In the end, it is my job to increase traffic in the restaurant, not decrease it.

A ways back, a poster on a prominent food/restaurant forum wrote a scathing and somewhat personal attack on me regarding their experience at Sycamore. Within our close-knit community, the post gained some attention and a strong response came out in my defense. As people reached out to me for comment, I had a long discussion with my boss and he made it clear that I was welcome to react as I saw fit. However, he encouraged me to turn the other cheek and simply thank those who spoke up for me and let the issue fade. Sure enough, after a matter of hours the thread was shut down from the site and normalcy returned. I am proud to say this guest has returned to dine at Sycamore several times since this incident.

That’s what bars are for. Tony Maws / Craigie on Main
From the beginning, Sycamore was meant to be more than just a restaurant. We hoped our bar would be a lively and regular place for people in the neighborhood to hang out. We love the notion that a bar should be at once a meeting place and a refuge from whatever is bothering you. We find it just as satisfying to see a regular swing by for a drink before closing as we do when they bring their family in for dinner.

A few years ago I was out for a drink at Craigie on Main with a friend. While we waited for seats, Chef Maws came over to say hello. When he asked me how I was doing, I was more honest than I might usually be. I was having a rough time – a family illness, a breakup, a fruitless apartment search… Half way through my bumbling, I realized I was over-sharing and paused, embarrassed. He slapped me on the shoulder, smiled warmly and said, “Hey, that’s what bars are for.” That has stuck with me ever since.

I’ve Got This. Ana Sortun / Oleana
Dealing with food allergies, intolerances and aversions is a huge part of our job as restaurant professionals these days. On any given night at Sycamore, roughly 10% of the orders that come in to the kitchen will have specific notes about a guest’s allergies. We take handling these very seriously. Our service team has an excellent working knowledge of the menu and our kitchen team does a fantastic job preparing these orders safely. In my book, there is no better sign of professionalism than being able to quickly guide a guest through the menu and explain exactly what is safe for them to eat and what we can do to help accommodate them.

Chef Sortun once relayed this story of an interaction she had witnessed at a legendary New York restaurant. A woman had sat down at the bar and told the bartender of a serious food allergy. Part way through her meal, a dish was delivered that had not been modified properly and clearly contained whatever the woman was allergic to. The bartender apologized and got her a new dish. A short time later, when the woman’s entrée was placed in front of her, it too was not properly prepared. Before she could say anything, her expression clearly flustered, the bartender swept the dish away, looked the guest right in the eye and said to her, “I will fix this for you.” While this assurance was enough put the woman at ease, this situation should hopefully never occur. Hospitality and comfort go hand in hand, and a guest who has clearly communicated an allergy should not be worried about how this will be handled. The lesson I took from Chef’s story was that through consistent systems, protocol and confidence, we can put ourselves in the position of telling our guests, “I’ve got this,” rather than, “I’ll fix this.”

Get People their Medicine. Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli / Island Creek Oyster Bar & An Experience at Per Se
Dining out isn’t always celebratory, and sometimes the whole production can leave people rife with anxiety. Any time we perceive a guest is stressed as they sit, we make sure we get them a drink as soon as possible. There really is nothing like a slug of something strong to take the edge off and get your night started right. A splash of bubbles is a personal favorite of mine. It never fails to put a smile on someone’s face and ease any tension they may have been feeling.

Of the many bits of wisdom I learned from Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, “Get them their medicine,” is by far my favorite. Tom’s pep talks before graduation season, Mother’s day or, especially, before the start of a Red Sox home stand, were always thoughtful and would inevitably end with that phrase. The point was this – as much as we like to drive a guest’s experience, there are things outside our realm of control. Maybe they had a bad day at work or couldn’t find a parking spot for twenty minutes. Maybe they’re getting over a cold or just realized they left their wallet at home. Maybe they just aren’t psyched to be having dinner with the people at their table. You never know what someone is bringing through the door. I’ve experienced this lesson firsthand as a diner:

One of the most memorable restaurant meals I’ve had was at Per Se in New York. Having scored a last minute table, my friends and I were excited for the experience, but also anxious. The day of the dinner, we left for the city as early as we could. We hit little traffic on the way and were making good time. Once in Manhattan, though, we got lost twice. First while finding our hotel, which had changed the entrance to the other side of the building, and again walking to the Time Warner Center where the restaurant is. Dressed to the nines and sweaty from sprinting down Broadway, we were mortified that we were late for our reservation. As soon as we arrived, the hostess welcomed us warmly and led us to our table. Rather than try to expedite our meal due to a time crunch, the sommelier came by with a bottle of Champagne and asked if he could pour us a round. We sat, sipped and caught our collective breath, realizing only after a glass each that they had given us a lovely table by the fireplace and overlooking Columbus Circle. Without mention, the somm kept pouring and we eased in to the experience. Only after we had polished off the bottle did the captain come over and ask if we were feeling more relaxed and offer to show us the menu. They were intuitive in reading our stress upon arrival. They were thoughtful in handling it. All we needed was a little medicine.

About the author

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Zach Lieberman

Zach is the General Manager and Wine Director at Sycamore. A Massachusetts native, he has been working in the restaurant industry since he was 16. He believes in friendly faces, dark rooms, and loud music. He is working on a way to meld his love of food, baseball, wine, and punk rock. So far to no avail.